Oswaldo Estrada

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The Final Judgement

Translation by Gabriel Saxton

Llora, llora corazón,

llora si tienes por qué…

It was incredible to see him like that, wispy and defeated, lacking the will to insist on his innocence. After denying two massacres, the kidnapping of senior officials and the torture of young people and children no more than eight or nine years old, the aging dictator silently listened to his crimes as if he were out of time. Almost smiling and with a slightly contemptuous gesture, he let the accusations slide down his tiny nose like the metal glasses that had always looked enormous on him.

The life sentence struck him in his rocking chair as if he were the one who had to serve the time. And even more so as he gazed at him and his unkempt hair, the bewildered demeanor of a patient recently admitted to a psychiatric center. He no longer cared about making a good impression on those who had taken to the streets to protest for him. When he finally managed to get up, he realized he was living on borrowed time. He shaved by touch and reluctantly put on his clothes from the day before.

As he went out for bread, he confirmed with the neighbors the spectacle he’d just seen on television.

“How can they sentence him after he restored peace? If it weren’t for him, we’d be living from hand to mouth, worrying that a bomb could explode at any time, at any place.”

Gathered in front of a convenience store, the elderly residents lamented what had just happened. 

“People are very ungrateful, vecina. They don’t remember how things were before.”

With their bags and coin purses in hand or with newspapers and alfalfa bunches under their arms, they argued heatedly.

“I guarantee you that now the terrorists are celebrating all of this.”

“The terrorists? More like the government. The judges, the prosecutors. They’re all bought off.”

“What about human rights?”

“So the others didn’t kill?”

“What rights? Get outta here! Wouldn’t you say, don Casimiro?”

Leaning on his cane, the old man couldn’t hide his discomfort. His face looked unsettled as if the dictator they had just sentenced was a close relative. Poor guy, he said, wondering what his own life would be like if at this point in the game he was condemned to spend his last days in a cell. He wasn’t his son or grandson. He hadn’t even seen him from afar. But in his seventies, still walking upright and without any help, he’d been moved to see such a trustworthy candidate, devoid of the malice of other corrupt politicians.

Unlike his presidential opponent who jogged along the Barranco boardwalk, El Chino rode on tractors wearing ponchos and Andean chullos, talked about reforming the entire country, building schools and roads, ending violence, creating more jobs. He promised what everyone promises. Nevertheless, his newcomer’s aura and the foreign cadences of his accent captivated the masses effectively. He traveled to the most inhospitable parts of the country, went to the slums and played ball with children. When news reporters asked him to show his muscles to see if they were as defined as those of the opponent, instead of shrinking, El Chino displayed his fifty-something belly without shame, pretending to be strong and raising his arms like Tarzan.

For all that folksy cleverness, don Casimiro loved him as if they had been friends forever. He imagined that one day El Chino would pass through the neighborhood and honor him for his vociferous support to achieve the presidency. When they said in the newspapers that El Chino had been born abroad, don Casimiro flatly rejected the idea. I’ve been asked my whole life if I’m from China or Calle Capón, and I’m more of a northerner than the chicha de jora. My mother was from Monsefú and over there all the peasants, he laughed amusedly, are half Chinese and half cholos. Our names are Huamanchumo and Chamochumbi. And we dance barefoot Chiclayanita, dame tu amor. I assure you they wouldn’t give the poor guy so much grief if blue blood ran through his veins.

On election day, he woke his wife up before the first rooster calls. Hurry up, Paula, the polls open at any moment. Hurry up, he told her, as she put on her regular clothes. She had never liked being rushed, but this time the old man was right. They gulped their coffee with milk and walked together to the voting precinct they had been assigned. As if they’d been paid a commission to campaign for the party, don Casimiro and his wife asked everyone who crossed their paths to vote for El Chino.

With that same joy they celebrated the day the President closed the Congress. Well done, she noted. It’s what was needed, he applauded in front of the TV. Someone with the guts to send home a group of useless individuals, all the congressmen who feed on the people and live like royalty. They didn’t give a damn his actions were unconstitutional. Like many from the provinces, they were glad it was him; that little man without a commanding voice, just the credentials of his university studies, who promised in front of the cameras the reconstruction of the government. Now they’re ruined, mamá, he celebrated happily, clicking his tongue, humming a marinera. Screw them, she retorted, laughing. Withered on the outside but clinging tooth and nail to the memory of their best moments in life, they felt happy to be part of a change, even if it came to them in their twilight years.

He would’ve loved to be more like him. At seventeen, he wanted to go to the war with Colombia, but they dismissed him in two seconds at the sight of his skeletal physique along with the scars of orphanhood piercing his pupils. Go home and eat, boy, the frightened recruiting officer insisted. The way you are, you’ll die at the drop of a hat. He knew it, but wanted to die like a hero. He wanted a plaque with his name in the Plaza de Armas for having defended the homeland, not for dying like his mother and brothers. Of tuberculosis.

He’d been lucky enough to take a position at the Steam Navigation Company of Lambeyeque, where he was given the job of pinchasapos, which meant he’d run errands, sweep or mop, carry packages to the dock, deliver messages in sealed envelopes to the captain of some ship. From Japan, Chile, the United States.

“Wouldn’t you say, don Casimiro?”

The easy thing was to agree with the neighbors. El Chino had done a lot for them and now they were all ganging up on him. Who knows what he used to capture the opposition head and all the leaders of a movement that wanted to clean up corruption with bloodshed. How many, like him, didn’t applaud when the rebel leader was publicly displayed in an open cage, donning a striped suit to feed the people’s curiosity. But the deaths didn’t lie.

He was a supporter of the Aprista Party until he could no longer bear it; when the country went to hell with the devaluation of the currency and he found himself waiting endlessly in line to get ten bags of powdered milk. How incredible that this was the same country that only a few decades ago exported raw materials to Europe. Coffee, cocoa, molasses, premium quality rice, sugar and the prized Pomalca rum, when the northern estates were experiencing their best moment. He went from being a pinchasapos to executive director of the same steam company at the Port of Pimentel.

At ninety-four years of age, he felt useless when confronted by the questions of the old men who had been his neighborhood companions ever since he left his small hometown to settle in the capital, after the agrarian reform distributed the lands of the old haciendas, dividing them into cooperatives and agricultural enterprises. He was tired of living, of going from one government to another and realizing that politics is shit. According to his calculations, he’d lived between four and six military coups and a string of pseudo-democratic governments, witnessed at least three institutional changeovers, one self-coup, and countless electoral frauds.

He no longer wanted to start over as he’d done in one of the last crises when he grabbed his yellow Volkswagen and began working as a taxi driver. Don’t go out, Dad, his daughter would tell him. Your car has already been stolen twice and you insist on going out there on the streets. With what I earn at school we can cover our monthly expenses. You’re running the risk of getting killed one of these days. But the old man couldn’t stop working. I’m ashamed, hija. He didn’t mind charging a pittance for racing from one end of town to the other. Or that his glasses were stolen at a stoplight. He did it with the same pride with which he once swept the company’s warehouses, where after years of paying for algebra and trigonometry classes and studying by correspondence, he obtained the title of Commercial Accountant.

What would his Paula say if she were with them, if she knew what they had discovered? What if one of those missing was my child? Of course, a major crisis had to be stopped. But like this? Premeditated killing because the others had also done it? And wouldn’t I have followed the dissidents if they had knocked on my door when I didn’t have a cent in my pocket? He was tired of living, and even more so of thinking that he was wrong. That while he celebrated the achievements of El Chino, summary executions, crimes of corruption and espionage of journalists and politicians, diversion of funds, forced sterilization of thousands of women who underwent surgery without anesthesia just for a little bit of food, were carried out behind closed doors.

He said goodbye with a distant gesture, waving the bread bag. He went his usual way and turned right onto the Calle de Las Perdices until he reached number 427. He wanted to cry, but that also seemed pointless to him.

He would’ve loved to see the sea again. Run along the beach of Pimentel and feel the salt on his feet, dissolved from so much wandering. Or climb the mango tree with his brother Miguel. But he ran out of time. The bread rolled on the ground. Embracing his mother’s grave in the Tumán cemetery, he was ten years old again and felt a light caress on his forehead. The smell of old-fashioned sugar stick candy. The corn drink sweetened with cane molasses and the crispy bread fresh from the oven.

Because he hadn’t spoken since the last stroke, no one was surprised that he didn’t answer. Nor that he didn’t insist on his innocence on the day of the final judgment.

Translation of “The Final judgment” Copyright Oswaldo Estrada. Translation copyright 2020 by Gabriel Saxton. All rights reserved.

Oswaldo Estrada (Santa Ana, California 1976) was raised in Lima, Peru, until his family moved to the United States when he was a teenager. He is a fiction writer, essayist, and professor of Latin American literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he has authored and edited several books of Latin American literary and cultural criticism. He is also the author of a children’s book, ‘El secreto de los trenes’ (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2018), and a collection of short stories, ‘Luces de emergencia’ (Valparaíso, 2019). He is editor and co-author of ‘Incurables. Relatos de dolencias y males’ (Ars Communis, 2020). And his book, ‘Las locas ilusiones y otros relatos de migración’ (Premio Feria Internacional del Libro Latino y Latinoamericano 2020), will be published by Axiara this year.